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First-Year Studies

Course Descriptions


American Playwrights in Chicago   

Ben Goluboff

Chicago is home to a vivid and diverse theater scene that includes everything from tiny stages in the back rooms of bars to glitzy Broadway-style productions.  This course will examine a selection of American-authored plays from the Chicago season as the materials for an introduction to literary studies.  As such, the course considers the plays we see and read as an occasion to develop skills in critical thinking, research, and writing.  A secondary objective is to connect the various plays to particular moments or themes in American history and culture.  We will proceed from the acquisition of a simple critical vocabulary for describing a play’s form and content, through character study, to more complex questions of the director’s decisions in taking a play from the page to the stage. 

Art and Activism in Chicago

David Sanchez-Burr

Art production and social activism have a long and intertwined history. This course will explore the efforts made by contemporary artists in the Chicago Area to parlay their creative practices while addressing working conditions, human rights, social justice, and equality. Topics related to the history of social activism in Chicago and the artists related to specific movements will be discussed in a seminar style setting. Research will be part of this course through the study of currents in the arts and the artists seeking ways to raise awareness. From Haymarket Square to the present, we will cover how and when art inserts itself in social activism in Chicago and beyond. 

Becoming Adult: Liminal States

Holly Swyers

You probably don’t know it yet, but you are in a liminal state. In anthropology, a liminal state is when a person is betwixt and between, for example being not really a high school student anymore but not quite a college student. This course focuses on figuring out your liminal state in three ways: 1) exploring the idea of liminality, including the idea that all of college is a liminal space before adulthood, 2) challenging you (literally) to try something new on a regular basis, like three days of Veganism or 24 hours without social media, and 3) exposing you to tools you will need in your adult life, ranging from negotiating politics at dinner parties to exploring career options. If you’ve read this far and didn’t get put off by the scary title or your assumptions about what this course would be, you have what it takes. 

BFFs: “Besties” and Female Friendship  

Kate Reedy

“Besties” are found everywhere in contemporary fiction, television, and film. Usually placed behind romantic relationships, female friendship is now understood to be a powerful and even transformative dynamic, one that is central to female identity. Men and lovers take a back seat: A “Coldplay song plays in my heart” whenever Hannah Horvath sees her two closest friends in “Girls.” Are BFFs taking over the usual unions of romantic or erotic love? How much are girlfriends the focus of these stories? In this course, we examine these contemporary representations of female friendship, from television programs such as “Girls” to the erotic and dangerous “besties” of Emma Cline’s The Girls. Throughout, we discover the many sides of this complex, and contradictory, relationship. 

Chicago, First City of Comedy

Liz Benacka

 Chicago became the birthplace of improvisational theater in 1955, with the opening of the first improvisational theater company, Compass. Chicago is now home to dozens of improv clubs that both perform and train aspiring comedians and actors, perhaps most notably Second City. Additionally, Chicago has been the home of humor outlets like The Onion and the largest sketch comedy festival, Chicago SketchFest. This course will examine the early development of improv in Chicago, as well as the practical application of improvisational theater games designed to help individuals prepare for the unexpected on the stage and in life. An overview of Chicago’s current role in humor production will also be a focus, necessitating visits to comedy clubs to attend shows and discuss this genre with practitioners and instructors.

Free Speech

Evan Oxman

Undoubtedly, one of the most important rights that citizens in liberal democracies possess is the right to freely express themselves without fear of governmental sanction. However, while it may be easy to defend the right of free speech in the abstract, when faced with particular utterances that offend, shock, and/or harm, many of us will defend certain limitations on speech as morally appropriate or politically necessary. This course will be an examination of when, if ever, it is appropriate to restrict speech. Is there an absolute right to free speech? If so, does it only apply in certain public settings? And is the notion of “hate speech” a coherent idea? We will examine such questions (and many others) through a rigorous examination of iconic Supreme Court cases, classic works in political philosophy, and contemporary debates in politics, sociology, and psychology. 

German Film and Culture

Richard Fisher

Film provides a lens for studying culture. In this course we will focus on German Film and Culture. Examining masterpieces of German cinema from its inception to the opening of the 21st century, the course will approach the filmmaker’s art from the perspectives of political and cultural history as well as cinematic aesthetics: the “language of film.” The course views films (subtitled in English) by such noted filmmakers as Lang, Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders. Along the way we will debate the powers and perils of popular culture, and trace patterns of interaction between history, works of art, and entertainment. Readings and discussions are in English, and the course encourages comparisons with films from other cultures, including popular Hollywood cinema. 

Knowing Yourself and Others: Socialization in College 

Scott Edgar

This course investigates the construct of Social Emotional Learning, and how that maps on to skills needed to be successful in college. Students will take on a “third person” perspective as researchers to observe social and emotional occurrences on campus while engaging in self-reflection to become more socially and emotionally competent, themselves. Assignments will include summaries of research articles, observation logs, research protocol development, self-narrative construction, and a culminating assignment having the students investigating a specific element within SEL (self-awareness, social-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, or relationship management), how it presents itself on campus, how it is presented in today’s society and in popular culture, and strategies for teaching improvement in this area.  

Meteors, Dinosaurs and Scientific Argument

Amy Abe

What caused the extinction of dinosaurs? What theories have been derived from what evidence about this extinction? This course will examine how scientists go about convincing others by focusing on this topic. In 1980, scientists from disparate disciplines advanced the theory that the impact of a meteor 66 million years ago set in motion the events that resulted in the extinction of some three-quarters of Earth’s species, including dinosaurs. It was only in the 1990’s that the larger scientific community came to the consensus around that notion. And there is an ongoing research question of why did the meteor strike then in the Yucatán Peninsula? In this seminar we will explore how scientists use observational evidence and calculations to advance persuasive arguments. This includes looking at the incomplete nature of contemporaneous scientific evidence as well as considering the questions of skeptical paleontologists, geologists and astronomers.

Government and Markets

Kent Grote

Why is the government involved in some aspects of our lives more than others? This question can be answered in many different ways, depending on one’s theoretical background. Different economists would provide different analyses of the government’s role, especially as it relates to business and markets. They would also base their arguments on fundamental economic theories. The primary goal of this course is to develop an understanding of economic markets and issues where governments have become important participants. Both in the United States and abroad, governments take an active role in the economics of education, the environment, health care, big business, poverty, and unemployment, among other issues. Although the course will be approached from an economic perspective, the topics relate to other fields of study as well, and particularly to the fields of politics and sociology.

Medical Mysteries of the Mind  

Shubhik DebBurman

This course is for beginning students interested in exploring the human brain in a rigorous interdisciplinary way.  If you are intensely interested in how your brain helps you think, feel, sense, read, write, eat, sleep, dream, learn and move, this course is for you.  You will learn how brain dysfunction causes complex medical illnesses, like Alzheimer’s, Autism, and Schizophrenia.  You will meet Chicago’s world-class neuroscientists through guest seminars and class-trips to famous laboratories.  You will debate ethical dilemmas that face society and dissect human brains.  Lastly, you will present at the Brain Awareness Week on campus.  One year each of high school biology and chemistry is recommended. 

Philosophy of Humans and Animals   

Janet McCracken

Western philosophers since Aristotle—at least—have claimed that human beings, as a species and alone among species, are capable of complex reasoning. The seventeenth-century French philosopher Descartes, famously, denied that non-human animals have minds or could think, claiming that they are essentially robots. From these kinds of premises, philosophers have inferred a wide range of ethical and religious claims, e.g., it is ethically permissible to eat non-human animals. Alternative claims, however, have just as long a history. In this course, we will read and discuss an array of philosophical opinions on the similarities and differences between humans and other animals, and the practices of industrial farming, training animals to work or entertain, building and patronizing zoos, animal experimentation, and other controversial topics

Religious Violence and Coexistence

Anna Trumbore Jones

How do people of different religious faiths interact?  How do they create professional and personal relationships—and what limits are placed on those relationships, either by law or by the individuals themselves?  Conversely, what causes hostility and violence between faiths?  This course investigates these eternal questions through an in-depth study of relations between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in the medieval Mediterranean world.  We will begin with the earliest interactions between these religious traditions, as Christianity and Judaism diverged from common roots into separate faiths in the first two centuries CE, and as Islam emerged in the seventh century.  In our second unit, we will study medieval Spain, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims coexisted relatively peacefully for centuries, but where that toleration crumbled in the later Middle Ages, culminating in the Spanish Inquisition.

Science and Society

Jennifer Jhun

Science and technology are inseparable from the people and activities that engage in them and are influenced by them. In this course we will ask questions such as: what is science? How do scientists go about doing it? Where does science get its authority? What are the responsibilities of scientists to the public…and vice versa? What are the ethical, legal, and political considerations that should accompany technological and industrial development? How has the way we have thought about information changed over time? We will read both classic and contemporary texts concerning these issues, and students will develop their critical and philosophical abilities in order to assess and contribute to debates both historical and current. 

Street Art: The Politics of Authorship and Ownership

Denise Kripper

This course will explore the history of visual expression in public spaces in its different renderings, from graffiti vandalism to outdoor art galleries. We will focus on the aesthetic side of street art, as well as on its social and political implications in their different cultural contexts. We will discuss how street art has challenged traditional notions of art, has redefined what being an artist means, and has changed the way spectators see, enjoy, and consume art. Special attention will be given to questions of authorship and ownership by discussing issues of cultural property and art reproductions. Films, guest lectures, and creative projects will supplement class meetings and readings. This course will include an excursion to the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago, famous for its Latino street art. 

The Great Migration in Chicago

Brian McCammack

In the half-century following World War I, more than five million African Americans left the American South—usually for cities in the North and West—in the Great Migration. In that period, Chicago’s black population grew from just over 44,000 to more than 1.1 million, dramatically reshaping the face of the city. This course will explore the connections between that history and African American cultural production and experiences. We will close read and contextualize from a variety of disciplinary perspectives—including history, literary and film criticism, sociology, critical race studies, and cultural studies—to examine the historical significance of a variety of texts including novels, plays, photographs, maps, sociological surveys, oral histories, and correspondence. 

The Great War            

Jim Marquardt

World War I (1914-1918) marked the end of the “old world order” and unleashed complex forces of political, economic and social change, the effects of which are still being felt today.  The course examines these forces and the events that led the European powers to take up arms against one another and surveys the war’s major battles on the Western Front.  It considers the United States’ relationship to the war, focusing on President Woodrow Wilson’s policies of neutrality and belligerency, and his failed quest to establish the foundations of a post-war liberal world order.  The American war mobilization and peace movements, and especially the peace advocacy of Chicagoan Jane Addams, are studied.  Students also read several, classic war novels.  2018 is the centennial of the armistice, which finally put an end to this deadly – and inconclusive – conflict.

The Science of Cooking  

Elizabeth Fischer

Since 1992, the term molecular gastronomy has become part of understanding the world’s cuisine. This course will examine the chemistry and physics of cooking, and the physiology of taste and flavor.  We will explore such questions as what is the science behind making a foam or gel; how do you prevent food bacteria from forming; and what does it mean to temper chocolate?  The science of cooking includes the important works of Hervé This, Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, José Andrés, and Grant Achatz, among others.  We will read their work and not only become familiar with the latest materials and methods of the world’s most innovative cuisine, but also learn how these methods may be part of the solution to ending world hunger.  We will work with a chef to perform experiments to elucidate the theory we will be studying. 

Wild Chicago: Exploring the Urban Jungle

Sean Menke

This course will offer students a clear understanding of the wildlife around us and how humans interact with their environment. The goal for the class is to help students think and write clearly and critically, form educated opinions and defend those opinions about a wide range of environmental issues in urban environments. Based on our own observations we will also learn how to ask educated questions about the relationships between humans and the environment. By visiting with a carefully selected group of environmental professionals and regularly observing and recording information on the environment in which we live, we will explore how wildlife interacts with humans on an everyday basis. 

Women Onstage: From Antigone to Beyoncé 

Chloe Johnston

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”—Simone deBeauvoir   Gender is learned—a collection of behaviors that we all learn to replicate through a kind of performance that happens on and offstage. In this course, we will think about how this understanding of gender plays out in performance spaces. We’ll take a broad look at the ways women have been portrayed onstage in different kinds of theatrical performance, from plays to music. We’ll look at how women have expressed themselves and addressed political issues through theatre and performance—and how their voices have, at times, been excluded. We’ll look at the changing answers to the question—what is a woman?